Only 1 percent of the food produced in Centre County is consumed in Centre County. However, according to Travis Lesser, founder and executive director of new local nonprofit Appalachian Food Works, the county produces enough food to “basically feed our entire population.”
“We have a lot of people in and around State College and Bellefonte who want to support local business by shopping at farmers’ markets and eating at restaurants who buy from local farms, but not everyone is able to get to the markets, and it can be difficult to find the restaurants who are consistently sourcing their food from local producers,” he says. “Speaking of restaurants, there are actually quite a few in our region that buy directly from local farms, and many that do their best to do so throughout the year. However, they may find it difficult to work with multiple different farms rather than one or two national suppliers like they have become accustomed to doing.”
This is where Appalachian Food Works comes in — as an intermediary between the farmer and the buyer, whether that buyer is directly the consumer or a local restaurant. Lesser says the organization’s initial focus is to create a “beneficial and symbiotic relationship across the entire value chain.”
The first step of this process is a simple one, and includes participation from one of the many local businesses and organizations integral to getting Appalachian Food Works up and running.
“We will be starting out with a very focused approach to sell locally-raised beef to restaurants, and doing so in a very bare-bones way,” Lesser says. “We will purchase and pick up orders from Rising Spring Meats in Spring Mills, and deliver cuts of beef in our personal vehicles with cooler bags. These early stages will be critical in building relationships across the value chain, as well as perfecting our processes. We will be looking to grow quickly as we add customers, markets and products, but the focus must remain on ensuring the farmer is getting fairly compensated for his or her harvest.”
Appalachian Food Works’ current goal is to become fully operational by January and experience incremental growth through 2019.
What does this growth look like? The organization aims to serve buyers beyond restaurants and consumers, such as schools, “but also work to solve the issue of our surrounding rural communities becoming more dependent on national chains to feed their families, as well as encourage growth of local business through a food and agriculture business incubator with [a] commercial kitchen.”
For those who want to help Appalachian Food Works reach their goals, an upcoming information session takes place at 6:30 p.m. on Oct. 22 at New Leaf Initiative. The event is open to buyers and suppliers, as well as potential volunteers, board members and donors.
You can RSVP for the event on Facebook or contact Lesser for a virtual link to the session, at [email protected].
Even for those who can’t become directly involved in the organization, Lesser still stresses the importance of understanding the relationship between agriculture and our local and regional economies.
“By ensuring farmers are reaching markets and receiving fair value for their harvest, they are able to concentrate on doing what they love to do: grow or raise quality food. On the other end of the spectrum, we have restaurants, institutions, schools and others who want to provide fresher, more healthful food, but it may become difficult to execute from a logistical and budgetary perspective,” he says.
He encourages consumers to look for locally-sourced ingredients on restaurant menus and to buy from businesses that are owned locally or that buy from local producers.
“You are speaking with your hard-earned money that you value a strong, self-reliant local economy. Doing otherwise encourages the inevitable rise of national chains controlling our food system, much like is happening in many communities not only in Central Pennsylvania, but also throughout the country.”